‘The culminating flower of cat-worship in Egypt’
Nineteenth-century stage Cleopatras and Victorian views of ancient Egypt
in Victorian literary culture and ancient Egypt
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This chapter considers how theatrical productions of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra from the mid to late nineteenth century shaped Victorian views about ancient Egypt, suggesting that such productions were received by audiences as emblematic of Britain’s shaky imperial position. Turning to audience responses and charting the development of the stage Cleopatra from a ‘majestic Juno’ to a ‘demonic Venus’ via performances by Isabella Glyn (1849, 1855, 1867), Ellin Wallis (1873), Sarah Bernhardt (1890) and Lily Langtry (1890), this chapter examines how such imperial anxieties are expressed in relation to views about both English and Egyptian women. Re-examining passages from Shakespeare’s play in which Cleopatra is referred to as a ‘whore’ whose ‘lust’ for Antony can only mean destruction for Egypt and Rome in light of the cultural context surrounding nineteenth-century productions, further illuminates how reviewers saw the play as bound not only to Victorian assumptions about women’s sexuality but to deep-rooted anxieties about Britain’s relationship with Egypt itself.

Editor: Eleanor Dobson

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